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7/3/2016 / Issue #006 / Text: Madalina Preda

What makes a home?

Is it the roof, the sofa, the shower or the people that make a place feel like home? Or is a home something that you find within yourself? This series takes a close look at people that have chosen to live their lives in alternative, unconventional spaces. Can their out of the ordinary stories teach us something about what truly makes a home? In this first episode, we meet Malcolm who gave up on the city to live inside a repurposed container in the forests of Friesland. 

It was raining and the wind was blowing hard, but Malcolm was outside in the backyard, building a path from in front of his doorstep up to the main road using discarded wood chips. The path stopped abruptly after a few meters, marking the moment when I called to let him know I couldn’t find his address. It was a long drive from Amsterdam, and some roads in this remote part of the Netherlands don’t show up on the maps. I had come to visit Malcolm to see his new home – a repurposed container parked in the backyard of a squatted farm at the border between Friesland and Drenthe provinces. When he greeted me in front of the farm, Malcolm looked refreshed, peaceful and happier than when I had last seen him in Amsterdam.

Last year, Malcolm was planning a tour around the world, by foot. He wanted to visit 73 countries in 5 to 10 years. He felt it was time to leave his home country, the Netherlands, and find a home somewhere else. While planning for this trip, he got the idea to design a special cargobike that could transform into a portable home. He crowdfunded and gathered the money he needed to buy a second hand bakfiets, but the guy who was selling it eventually changed his mind. Malcolm’s plan to travel across the world was stalling – he was still in Amsterdam and those 73 countries he wanted to visit seemed very far away. While waiting for something to change, Malcolm discovered something had changed inside him – he started thinking that he might be looking for happiness in the wrong place. “I didn’t postpone the world trip, I do travel and hitchhike once in a while. But I did realise that happiness is not something you find in a trip around the world. It’s nice to go on a trip, long or short, when you have a point of return, but not when you only do it to flee the fact that you don’t have a home.”

“I liked the idea of a steady home, but to still be able to move around,” Malcolm told me when I asked him how the idea of a container home first came about. “I realised it doesn’t matter what country you live in, so I decided to stay in the Netherlands, but I didn’t want to continue paying a lot of money on rent to live in Amsterdam. I once lived in Japan in a capsule home and that experience taught me that living in small spaces makes sense. The things that you grow up with, the comfort that you are used to – you don’t need all of that. You can do with much less.”

The 10 square meters container home was a 2000 euro investment. Malcolm did all the work inside, painted the ceiling and fittings, added shelves, a table, two foldable chairs, a bed, a coat rack and two lamps. He has two portable cookers that run on oil, a plastic jerrycan filled with water, and an electrical heater. At the moment, he relies on electricity from external sources, but he plans to put solar panels on the roof of the container by the end of the year. The keetje (the Dutch word for “shack”, the endearing term he likes to call his home) has a very low energy usage and the only time Malcolm turns the heating on is if the house gets too moist, which happens a few times during the winter months. The temperature inside Malcolm’s home was just right on that day, even though outside the wind was blowing big, heavy, cold raindrops on all sides of the container. I thought a storm would feel threatening between those thin metal walls, but there was something about this home that made me feel safe from the storm.

“I can feel home anywhere,” Malcolm tells me when I ask him what home means for him. “As an artist, you have to dive deep inside yourself, even to those most uncomfortable or dark parts of yourself that some people run away from. That makes it easy for me to feel at home in different types of situations or different types of places”. He shows me what he has been working on – a greenhouse where they have planted mycelium spores to grow mushrooms. In the backyard, they have another garden for vegetables. Inside the farm, there is a woodshop where they are building beehives and Malcolm is also working on building his own projector using a phone and some magnifying glass.

“Home is about embodying yourself. The place where I would like to live is like the one I have now – a place where I have the freedom to build my own things, where I don’t need a permit to build a greenhouse or a woodshop,” he says. “Living in the city, it’s almost impossible to garden or to build whatever you want. You pay most your salary on rent for an apartment in the city that you don’t even have the time to enjoy because you have to work a lot to be able to afford it. For me, this is the biggest contradiction in society. I want to be able to go outside and do something that is not about consuming. In the city, we are always consuming – cinemas, museums, cafes, restaurants… Here, I can only consume what I made myself.”

The wind is getting stronger as we step outside the comfort of Malcolm’s keetje. He gives me a last tour of the farm and shows me the wood chip path he was working on before I arrived. Before the end of the day, he wants to finish the path and start working on the “handmade” projector he is building. Inside the woodshop, the other people in the farm are building beautiful wooden beehives, with sliding doors. They have five bee colonies that were sleeping when I got there. The bees get their nectar from the field of flowers right behind the farm, which means they don’t need to feed them extra sugar like city beekeepers do. I didn’t get a chance to taste the honey they made so far, but Malcolm swears it is delicious.

There doesn’t seem to be enough hours in a day for all the things they want to build at the farm. They have plans to organise a festival in the abandoned stables this summer and Malcolm wants to hold a creative workshop for artists and activists who want to build creative disobedient objects for direct action. There is a tangible sense of freedom and community in this little corner of the forest. Home means different things for different people and for the people living here, home means freedom.